The anger that builds when you read John le Carré’s novel The Constant Gardener is rooted in the term “proper channels.” As in: “Be a good chap and go through the proper channels.” Or: “There are proper channels for this sort of thing, old boy.” How often le Carré must have heard that phrase in his time in the service. How often we all hear it, even outside the realm of diplomacy. It isn’t long before you realize that “the proper channels” are the ones full of strategic blockages and diversionary tributaries. To find other ways to the source, you have to be something of a gardener.
The protagonist of Fernando Meirelles’ film of The Constant Gardener(Focus Features) is Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), an apolitical, midlevel British career diplomat posted in Africa—a mild, plodding fellow, evidently happiest when he’s digging in the dirt in back of his house. He has to dig in a different way when the body of his wife, Tessa (Rachel Weisz)—a strident, rich-girl political activist who was an odd match for him to begin with—turns up mutilated in a dry North Kenyan lake bed. Justin knows that Tessa was going on about the fact that African men, women, and children were dying by the thousands for reasons that had less to do with malnutrition and infection than with … what? It had something to do with the multinational pharmaceutical companies—”Big Pharma”—but he doesn’t remember the particulars. It wasn’t really any of his business.
This is among le Carré’s least twisty plots. The suspense isn’t in whodunnit and why: What’s happening is clear from the outset. It’s in whether Justin has the wiles and the tenacity and the guts to dig through the cover-up in the face of friends, colleagues, and superiors telling him—as they told his wife—to go through the proper channels. In his case, those channels are the only ones he has ever known.
Is Fiennes miscast? Perhaps. He’s a high-strung, somewhat clammy actor—not the first to spring to mind for this warmly self-effacing plodder. But he’s remarkably fine. As Quayle retraces the steps of his wife and her colleague, a Kenyan doctor named Bluhm (Herbert Koundé) who has disappeared amid hints that he was both Tessa’s lover and killer, Fiennes shows Quayle’s self-protective mask beginning to melt under the vicious African sun. Jittery and disoriented, Quayle has nothing in this world to hold on to.
The Brazilian Meirelles (City of God) was not the obvious choice to direct The Constant Gardener—thank heaven. He’s no Anglophile, and he doesn’t seem drawn to the paneled studies and old-boys’ clubs in which much of le Carré’s work takes place. He plunges us into the maelstrom of African poverty, starvation, and disease—of raw-sewage-saturated shantytowns and clinics overrun with dying mothers and children. He has an Impressionist’s palette: The emotion in the latter part of the film is in the funereal purple clouds against the stark white skies and the reds that leap out of the overbaked landscapes; in the swervy, streaky camera; and in the way the frame seems to expand or contract according to the characters’ anxieties.
There’s more of Tessa in the movie than in the book, and Meirelles and the screenwriter, Jeffrey Caine, keep their syntax swervy, too. They weave in and out of Quayle’s memories—dredging up moments of revelation, as when he stood cringing while Tessa posed rude questions to high English and Kenyan muckety-mucks, or when she confronted him about his true loyalties.
Le Carré and the filmmakers make their own loyalties plain. They were working from documented cases in which Big Pharma conducted drug trials on the populations of developing nations. But how far up the ladder does the conspiracy go? Are the coldly formal diplomats and ministers willfully oblivious, or are they in bed with the rapacious capitalists who threaten them over rounds of golf while their African caddies watch impassively?
Danny Huston (John’s son) is effectively squirmy as Quayle’s friend and colleague Sandy—one of le Carré’s familiar bureaucratic vacillators. But is the awkwardness in the character or the actor? The bogus English accent muddies the issue. The other actors playing members of the British High Command are perfect, among them Bill Nighy as a conscienceless minister—the exact opposite of the tender, halting bureaucrat he played in the recent HBO political drama The Girl in the Cafe (which was kind of a simplified, nonviolent version of The Constant Gardener).
Of course, if you’d like a summer vacation from all the conspiracy theories floating around (from Judith Miller’s role in Plamegate to Tom DeLay’s support for the sweatshop/sexshop paradise Saipan under the direction of Jack Abramoff), don’t see The Constant Gardener. It’s too infuriating and invigorating: It might inspire you to haul out those garden spades and get digging.